Racism in extreme situations: a sticky, uncomfortable reality

With the recent killing of Philando Castile  among others, I’ve seen on social media many people who are decrying some kind of inherent racism in older generations. This, many have said, results in the death of innocent African Americans time and time again.

A lot of the material on social seems to make very wide-ranging generalizations based on emotional reaction and what I see as “emotional opinion,” without much reflection and study. A white police officer kills an unarmed or innocent black man, and that statement seems to stand alone in people’s minds.

In my opinion, nobody should take those words at anywhere near face value without doing some deeper research into why such an event might have taken place.

PBS news anchor Hari Sreenivasan visited psychologist David Amodio at New York University  who has been working on studying racial bias in people, specifically pointed at the 18-29 millennial demographic. I reviewed the tape, and I think many people who especially consider themselves racially tolerant should take a look here.

Seriously, please click here and actually watch the broadcast.

Surprising and uncomfortable results come to light. Not only are dating preferences for virtually all racial backgrounds prefer Caucasian profiles, but most people more likely to shoot an unarmed black man statistically.

Most all the people I know would, when asked “are you racist?” vehemently answer with an emphatic “no.” We are demographically the most diverse society when compared to past generations. I would even say most people I know live a more racially diverse lifestyle than myself.

So what leads to these inherent biases? Can millennials blame their parents? Centuries of overt and covert prejudice and racism? That requires a lot of historical analysis to come up with a clear answer, but I believe a least a rough sketching would submit the answer is “yes.”

All this runs very deep, when race was first posited as a real condition of life hundreds of years ago. Attributing negative stereotypes to racial bias, according to this video, runs deeply enough to affect young children.

Now, we need to ask ourselves a very sobering question: If we generally believe science brings us cold, rational answers to our most important questions, can we find ways around these results to find that somehow we do not fit into the statistical norm? I think that is a question many of us can say at this point in time is an uneasy, sobering “no.”

Full disclosure: I was not able to find Amodio’s test online to take myself, and I was not able to travel to New York University to take the more comprehensive “shoot test.” Yet, an uncomfortable reality results which I believe would be best stated bluntly.

According to hard scientific study, many of us would likely, given the space of a split-second decision, shoot an unarmed black man before an unarmed white man. 

I caution before you take my words to heart, to review the video linked above to understand fully why I wrote that if the above statement confuses or bothers you.

I do believe millennials are more racially tolerant, and albeit slowly we are making progress. But I also wonder whether simply raising awareness, or something more extreme, is required to fulfill the change we all hope to see. I see people are very quick to react to racially-motivated killings when they only have themselves to judge, but science shows when judged from the outside, a majority of us might make the same decisions the police officers we seem to label as racist made.

Key word might. I want to be delicate in how I phrase this, and I hope I am putting my point across clearly. Statistical evidence does not establish a rule, simply a trend. What is incredibly interesting in this trend is it affects the very population which is making the hardest stance against institutionalized racism, at large in the court system and law enforcement and all walks of life: Millennials.

Another question arises: how often are we faced with split second, life-or-death decisions? Outside of law enforcement and the military, many people would be hard-pressed to find themselves in a situation where they did not have the time to take most all experiences and run them through our personal, emotional scrub test to vet out all the things we feel are negative in terms of bias.

We can all also understand that being a police officer does not automatically make you racist. Feel free to debate with me about anything I’ve said here, but especially that statement.

I think what the above study suggests is in the heat of split-second decisions, these inherent, buried biases are exponentially exacerbated when our lives, or the lives of others, are at stake.

I suggest the change we want to see is something that requires something deeper than we fully understand, and is a work-in-progress. What I do believe is a step in the right direction is asking oneself the uncomfortable question of whether or not any (or all) of us hold some kind of racial bias.

How do we overcome this? Is it training? Time? Will the shock of these events, and those past and future somehow lead us to teach our own children better?

If we want police officers to somehow quell this inherent racial bias, how do we do that? It’s truly futile to simply wish something away that is essentially a part of us all, and I believe without asking ourselves these tough questions, any attempt to “raise awareness” or “talk it out” moves into a wholly political realm as opposed to creating true, holistic, human progress in the face of racism.

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